|Worcester's Rural Cemetery|
I am a huge fan of cemeteries, and Worcester, though a small city, has several. I didn’t know that the places I admired so much were known as “garden” or “rural” cemeteries until my husband educated me. I had assumed that cemeteries were always park-like places, even though I’d visited a number of the remaining old-style burial grounds—or parts of them—preserved next to churches in the middle of cities. Even when reading Dickens’s Bleak House, with its ghastly image of an overcrowded burial ground, stinking of decay, I didn’t quite get it. Understanding the history deeply enhanced (as history normally does) my appreciation of these places.
So naturally I was excited to attend a lecture* recently “Withdrawn from the Bustle of the World: Worcester’s First Garden Cemetery.” [Coincidentally, a few days ago I came upon a terrific article that explains the development of the garden cemetery. I’ll let you click on the article to get the background, while I offer a few tidbits from the lecture I attended.]
In November 1837, a local lawyer, Edward D. Bangs, gave what turned out to be a stunningly effective Lyceum lecture, pushing for Worcester to create a rural cemetery. Worcester had three burial places in the center of town, all horribly overcrowded, disrespected, and neglected. And kind of gross. One enterprising business used the cemetery next door for drying clothes. Nobody’s grave was permanent. In one case, when railroad needed the space where a burial ground was, the railroad got it.
Bangs's 1837 lecture turned out to be inspiring beyond what you’d imagine. Others in the city, especially those of a horticultural turn, had already caught the garden cemetery bug, and a couple of our prosperous, civic-minded citizens bought land with cemeteries in mind. In September 1838—yes, less than a year after the lecture—Worcester’s first rural cemetery (called, aptly, Rural Cemetery) was dedicated, on land donated by Daniel Waldo.
In their early days, before the advent of public parks, rural cemeteries served as parks as well as places of burial. There, not only could families finally own and tend to their plots, but members of the public could also get away from the bustle and noise of the city and enjoy the trees, flowers, shrubs, and walkways as well as their own thoughts.
Even today, though the city has grown up around it (enough to hide the cemetery—which is why so many people don’t know it exists), the Rural Cemetery remains a beautiful oasis, a place for walking, discovering, and contemplation.
*by William D. Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum
Photographs by Walter M. Henritze III